On the Joys of Archival Research (seriously!)

by Laura K. Simmons

Last week, I got to visit the archive where I did my doctoral research, the Marion E. Wade Center in Illinois. Located on the campus of Wheaton College, the Wade Center houses many of the papers related to seven authors: Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Joy Davidman, Owen Barfield, and G.K. Chesterton…


The Wade Center also has a wardrobe from Lewis’s former home, and changing exhibits and programs related to its authors. For example, there have been exhibits and lectures around the Narnia and Lord of the Rings films when those were released.

c.s. lewis desk
C.S. Lewis Desk at Marion E. Wade Center Photo Credit: thomas ford memorial library, Creative Commons

I have had the pleasure of conducting research at the Wade Center twice. In 1996, I lived in Wheaton for five weeks, walking back and forth to the archive each day to make my way through the 30,000 pages of letters written to and by Dorothy L. Sayers. At that time, the archive was housed in a wing of Wheaton’s library, and my workstation was C.S. Lewis’s old dining-room table! Now the Wade Center has its own building, with a very well-equipped reading room surrounded by shelves of books by and about the Wade authors. I did more research there in 2002, making my way through a brand-new set of documents purchased through a Sotheby’s auction and loaned to the archive by the generous soul who had bought them.

Last week, I was at Wheaton for the 50th-anniversary celebration for the Wade Center, and I took advantage of that time to explore some of Sayers’s manuscripts, letters, and press clippings. One of the challenges of reading these documents is deciphering the handwriting. If you have trouble interpreting your professors’ comments on your papers, just multiply that out to 700+ pages!

Not every archive is known for its amazing staff, but the Wade Center is. I first met current archivist Laura Schmidt when she was a student worker, many years ago–and now she is the public face of the Wade Center, hosting its Facebook page and Off the Shelf blog. Interim director Marjorie L. Mead has co-authored or edited a number of books about C.S. Lewis, and often invites researchers to sit down for conversation while they are at the archive. Other staff who have helped me over the years were present for the 50th anniversary–it was great to catch up with them.

Next summer, I’ll return to Illinois for more research at the Wade Center. It’s wonderful to have all the dissertations and books about Sayers all in one place–if a dissertation mentions a certain document or book, I can likely find it sitting nearby. Another dimension of research in the Midwest during summer is the weather–massive thunderstorms sweep in during the afternoon, pouring rain so hard people will pull off the road and wait for the storm to pass. Sometimes I wish Oregonians would do the same…. 🙂

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